Count d’Orgel, by Raymond Radiguet
Raymond Radiguet died in 1923 at the age of 20. He left behind him a poetry collection and two novels. He’s a writers’ writer it seems, with fans including Cocteau and Huxley. I’m glad they liked him, because I didn’t.
Radiguet’s two novels are The Devil and the Flesh (which John Self recently kindly sent me a copy of, so that’ll appear on these pages in due course too) and Le Bal de Comte d’Orgel – Count d’Orgel (I would have thought a better translation The Ball of the Count d’Orgel, but I admit that sounds slightly antiquated. I can see why Count d’Orgel’s Ball was avoided, particularly given the subject of the book). Count d’Orgel was published posthumously by Cocteau in 1924, and comes with an afterword by him.
The afterword is short but good value, not least because of a quote it contains from Radiguet’s notes which sets out the essence of Count d’Orgel:
A romance in which it is the psychology that is romantic. The only effort of the imagination is applied not to outside events but to the analysis of feelings. A chaste love story as shocking as the least chaste. Style badly written as elegance must appear to be badly dressed. The social aspect: a useful atmosphere for the portrayal of certain feelings, but not a picture of society; difference to Proust. The background does not count.
It’s an excellent synopsis. So good in fact I wish I’d read it beforehand rather than after, I might have enjoyed the book more. Count d’Orgel is the story of a love triangle between the count, his wife Mahaut and a young man named François de Séryeuse who comes into their circle. François and Mahaut fall in love, but the fact of their love causes the Count to look at his wife afresh and so the married relationship is perhaps strengthened by the possibility of the extra-marital one.
This is a book largely without incident. The ball of the French title is prepared for but the entire book takes place before it. The characters meet, they talk and go to functions, but the action is all internal. Their emotions are what matters, their reflections (often inaccurate) on their own motives. This is very much a psychological novel. It’s the sort of story Stefan Zweig is so fond of. Undercurrents of passion suppressed beneath convention, but which threaten to burst out and to change everything.
So, why didn’t I like it? Well, there were a number of reasons really. I was indifferent to the characters for one. I don’t ask of a novel that I like the characters or that I sympathise with them. I certainly don’t ask that I empathise with them. The best novel I’ve read was Madame Bovary in which there wasn’t a single character I found remotely likeable.
The problem here was that I neither liked nor disliked these characters. I didn’t find them intriguing and nor did I wish to understand them better. I didn’t care whether Mahaut chose François or stayed with the Count. That’s a problem.
The question of course is why I was indifferent. It’s hard to answer. I think though the answer lies in Radiguet’s tendency to overexplain, which I’ll speak more about shortly.
Another issue that distanced me from the novel was its relentless and suffocating snobbery. This isn’t generally an issue for me with fiction. I’ve enjoyed Huxley after all and while I have a colleague at work who couldn’t complete A Dance to the Music of Time due to its particular snobbery (which is definitely present) I was never too concerned by it. What Huxley and Powell have though to compensate for their faults is compassion, a sense of the failings of those they portray. Here the cast of Count d’Orgel seem so utterly self-absorbed in their own sense of importance that such humanity as they had was swallowed by their surfaces.
Here’s an example. In this passage the Princess d’Austerlitz is introduced. Her car has broken down by the gate to an estate where a party is to be held. A crowd has gathered to “admire smart society” as it enters, and the breakdown leaves the princess stranded among them:
Under a gas lamp, in evening dress, with a coronet on her head, Princess d’Austerlitz was directing the repairs, laughing and talking to the mob. She was accompanied by an American lady, Mrs Wayne, who had a great reputation for beauty. Like all society reputations it was exaggerated. Anyone with the least insight could discover that she did not behave like a woman who possessed an assured advantage.
Princess d’Austerlitz was magnificent under the gas lamp which suited her better than the brilliance of electric light. She showed up well among these roughs, as much at ease as if she had always lived in their company. To avoid mentioning a name as showy as hers, everybody called her Hortense, which could imply that she was the friend of everyone, and in fact she was, oexcept of those who did not wish her to be. She was goodness itself. But moralists would perhaps have deplored it in the name of goodness. Certain houses were hostile towards her on account of the looseness of her morals.
So, uninteresting characters and an irresistible sense that those with most merit are those born with it. Much worse than either of these issues though is the one that for me was fatal. Radiguet explains everything.
This is a psychological novel. The entire point is the characters’ mental state. It’s a narrative which calls for subtlety and nuance. Unfortunately, at each stage Radiguet states quite explicitly what the characters each feel, indicates where they are misled as to their own emotions and generally leaves no space in which the reader can draw their own conclusions. I think this is at the heart of the other issues too. I didn’t care about the characters because I was given no space in which to care, no gap to cross to meet them. They were served to me fully prepared.
Here’s a short example:
François was not fully aware of his mother as an aristocrat. He was therefore inclined to exaggerate his personal merit, not realising that if he was received in exclusive houses it was often because of a family air, which other people did not even observe. For instance, in an Orgel’s fancy for François, there was perhaps the pleasure of finding something new in what is familiar.
It’s perhaps ungenerous, but I would have preferred Radiguet to show me how François mistook his station for his own merit, how Orgel’s liking for him was in part a liking for a previously unfamiliar member of his own class. By telling me all that, Radiguet has left me as a reader with nothing to do. It’s worse when the passages in question relate to the characters’ feelings for each other.
A psychological novel of necessity depends on two things: the portrait of the characters’ emotions and the language used to form that portrait. Radiguet is clever in having the driver of the drama being unexpressed desires, he is right that the result is as shocking (if that’s still the right term nearly 90 years later) in its way as expressed desires would be. Perhaps more so. The language though too did not entirely work for me.
Radiguet is exceptionally fond of similes. Things are always like other things. Sufficiently so that I became tired of it and worse began to notice it. Radiguet is known for the economy and beauty of his style, with this the best expression of it. For me though, on this occasion, it was lacking.
There is humour in the book. Much of it though is somewhat laboured. There is a farcical interlude when François is speaking with Mrs Wayne who is trying to seduce him by speaking of love but who he thinks is hinting at his own illicit feelings for Mahaut. It goes on too long for me. There are also passages such as the following:
Mme Forbach was married in 1850 to the Prussian Squire von Forbach, an alcoholic, collector of commas. This collection consisted of checking the number of commas contained in an edition of Dante. The total was never the same. He began again without remission. He was also one of the first to collect stamps, which at that time seemed quite mad.
All that said, it’s by no means all bad (I’m not sure I’m saying it’s bad at all, simply that I didn’t like it). Radiguet does have a nice eye at times for character, the Comte himself being the most interesting example. He’s a man completely at home when in public and on display. His whole persona is shaped around his position, with the result that when passion enters his marriage he is quite at a loss to understand his own response let alone that of others.
When drinking or eating he moved his free hand to prevent anyone interrupting and to impose silence. This gesture had become a tic and he did it even when there was nothing to fear, as today when his wife who never spoke, and François very little, were not dangerous rivals.
Radiguet also shows at times a wry (and intensely French) wit which works much better than his attempts at comic set-pieces. He remarks on how the “harmony of the Count and Countess d’Orgel’s movements expressed an understanding which love or habit alone can produce” and later notes that on a particular occasion “her husband desired her as though she were not his wife.”
Still, I’m left with the fact that the novel bored me. Radiguet sets out here to examine in painstaking detail the emotions of an affair that isn’t. That’s an interesting ambition and he largely succeeds. The chapters are very brief, often only a page or two. We move from scene to scene, the author’s eye observing vignettes and analysing their importance (sometimes with expressions of surprise or uncertainty). The effect is of an early arthouse movie, where the camera denies the viewer the comfort of narrative so forcing them to engage instead with the medium itself.
As I come to the end of this review, I can see why Cocteau, Huxley and others liked this. There is an audience out there for slow and contemplative works which don’t follow established rules of fiction. Sometimes I’m that audience. This time, however, I wasn’t. I’ll keep it around, I have a slight feeling I perhaps massively missed the point. Perhaps I’ll return to it. Perhaps my error was in reading Radiguet when my mood called more for Zweig. Perhaps Radiguet’s error was thinking he was Laclos. He refers to him at one point in the narrative, but I think he still had much to learn from that particular master.
Count d’Orgel. The Pushkin Press translation is by Violet Schiff.